The science of adolescence

In ‘Rocket Science,’ director Jeffery Blitz finds a way to free those trapping years of adolescence, and – more miraculously – he does it without falling too far in love with quirk and self-pity

Haily Gostas

Though you’d probably rather not have to, go ahead and channel the undoubtedly more awkward kid version of yourself, attempting to wiggle into teenaged transition like it was a pair of secondhand pants too tight around the crotch.

“Rocket Science”

Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
Starring: Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D’Agosto
Rated: R
Showing at: Uptown Theatre, 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, (612) 825-6006

Remember when, in a moment’s sliver, you suddenly fell face-first into the erratic complexities of adult human interaction? When your painfully endearing naïvety toward relationships was no longer valid, just a very outward representation of complete and total ineptitude?

If you either refuse or were simply one of those types too stone-cold and sexy-awesome to have endured any such adolescent angst (liar), the impossibly charming coming-of-age account “Rocket Science” will Windex all your most agonizing, but necessary, recollections until they’re crystal clear.

For that foremost reason, this bright, brainy little-film-that-could deserves plenty of praise. Tastefully, thankfully avoiding “Napoleon Dynamite” territory and nestling among the pubescent-peril humor of “Rushmore” and “Thumbsucker,” “Rocket Science” finally gives that token stuttering kid his two cents.

Shy, mousy Hal Hefner (played with pinpoint accuracy by newcomer Reece Thompson) trudges, stumbles and drifts through a too-big world with hardly a voice of his own. Plagued by an erratic stammer that makes even a trip through the lunch line embarrassing (“pizza” proves pretty hard to request), he’s the type that uses a massive rolling suitcase for a backpack and the janitor’s closet for sanctuary.

Among the other daily humiliations to disembowel his self-esteem include a ridiculous speech pathology class centered around Lamaze-like breathing exercises; and his greasy, Pete Doherty-resembling older brother Earl (Vincent Piazza), who insists on calling Hal by one of many emasculating girls’ names and threatens to “reach into yer eyes and tear outcho’ pancreas!” Even worse, he’s stuck in Plainsboro, New Jersey.

Rewind to last year, when star student Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto) was poised to reign over state debate championships with an iron idiom. While firing off a barrage of vocabullets on agricultural policy, Ben inexplicably stopped midspiel, his throat-frog costing him and his partner the winning trophy.

That would be the still-sour Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), a freakishly articulate beauty with an all-business thirst for blood, determined not to replicate her devastating defeat. Word-barren Hal, she hopes, will somehow mold into an ideal secret weapon, and proceeds to will the hopelessly smitten stutterer under her wing and onto the squad.

Though helped by a razor-sharp, non sequitur-laden script, “Rocket Science” shines because it refuses easy categorization (and never gets too sickeningly quirky to stomach). A color-by-numbers, competitive-teen flick would of course promise Hal the conquering of his impediment and the capturing of Ginny’s heart, happily ever after.

Instead, director Jeffrey Blitz develops a few late detours to protect his story from dooming clichés, forcing Hal to drastically re-evaluate his desires. And rightfully so, too – our formative years would be fictitious were they not messy, unfair and sometimes downright miserable.

Life is like a back-and-forth debate in that there never seems to be an obvious answer. More often than not, however, you’re not even given a precise argument to wield, just unplanned means of raw, clumsy communication.

Though its protagonist seems perpetually tongue-tied, the refreshingly exact “Rocket Science” has no problem finding its voice: an eloquent, amusing reflection on the tiny significant wisdoms that can surface from, and ultimately dissolve, all those familiar youthful woes.